“Women and African Capitalism in Changes”
One change in the estructure of a country affects to its citizens, to their role in society, to life in general. But, what about women? Does their role in society change with it?
Ama Ata Aidoo´s Changes analyses the role of different Ghanaian women before and after capitalism entered in their country and if there are any changes in women's life.
The opposition between oppressor and oppressed is the main characteristic of different societies throughout history and, as Kate Millet pointed out, “gender is the primary source of oppression in society.” (quoted in Hewitt Nancy A. 1990: 1. In Dubois/ Ruiz ed.;).
Feminism in its different phases has struggled against sexual differentiation and “has also attempted to free itself form naturalized patriarchal notions of the literary and the literary-critical” (Selden, R. 1997: 122). Woolf, De Beauvoir, Millet, Showalter, Cixous... are some of the names on feminist criticism, and gynocriticism, the notion of marginality and the deconstruction of binary oppositions are some of the topics.
Although gender is said to be the “primary source of oppression”, other elements such as class and race must be taken into account when trying to eradicate any form of oppression. Socialists and black feminists include class and race in their analysis.
Because the identification of feminism and white women, black feminists such as Alice Walker and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi talk about “black womanism” that apart from sexuality “must incorporate racial, cultural, national, economic and political considerations into her philosophy.” (quoted in E.B. Brown 1990:. 209. In Dubois/ Ruiz ed.).
Aidoo´s play Changes tries to reflect the oppression suffered by some of its characters because of what they are: non-western, coloured women. On this play we can hear the voices of Esi, Opokuya, Fusena and some of their ancestors commenting their problems, their feelings and we understand that, although there are some changes in women´s life, there are some things never change for them, because of patriarchal values.
They have to fight against what Audre Lorde called “the mythical norm” or the “standard” defined as “white, male, monied, propertied, middle or upper class, thin, young, blonde, Christian, heterosexual.” (quoted in Davies, C.B. 1994: 30). As coloured women they are on the negative side of the column living in a country influenced by western society, the one that created those values.
Western patriarchy has used human sciences to stablish differences:
Sociology, anthropology, and psychiatry, most importantly, represented the other of class, race, and sex to and for the middle class culture according to the principle of gender, which erased social, cultural and economic differences
(Levy, A. 1991: 107)
pretending that those differences are natural and implicate the inferiority of those not defined in that “mythical norm”.
Living in the modern Ghana and having received western education, Esi assumes those capitalist values and tries to scale through the positive side of the “standard” by working hard in order to reach a good position. The problem is that, although she could check off some of these categories, she could never be white or male. She is victimised by both the African and Western patriarchal concept of what “a good woman” should be.
The combination of those patriarchal values and the Western education she received, makes Esi and the rest of female characters in the novel feel alienated, “a native of nowhere” ( Aidoo 1990: 56). The difference is that while Opokuya and Fusena accept “their role as women” imposed by men, Esi tries to find her own place in that society but refusing to succumb to men´s domination.
Through Changes, Aidoo attempts to deconstruct those topics about women and “to do community work” (Davies, C.B. 1994: 36) by writing about real problems of contemporary black women in an intelligible way so that it serves for telling women without education of their rights.
According to patriarchy, Esi is exactly the opposite of what “a good woman” should be. First of all, “Esi put her career well above any duties she owed as a wife” (8. My italics) and as a mother, renouncing to her daughter in favour of her job. With it, Aidoo deconstructs the first topic about black women, the one about “the mammy”. On black feminist writings “the selflessness of the `mammy' is positioned against or along with a series of deliberate self-constructions by Black women” (Davies, C.B. 1994: 135). Esi is constantly opposed to Opokuya who, in Oko´s words “is a good woman” (9). Opokuya dedicates her spare time and the time she does not have to her role as wife and mother and works as a nurse in a hospital, which was considered, in Rosenberg Deposition, July 3, 1984, as a “traditional work” because it “sustained notions of the `ideal' family”. (Kessler-Harris, A. 1990: 438. In Dubois/ Ruiz ed.). Opokuya represents, in some way, the figure of the mammy: an overweighed nurse and mother of four children.
As Anita Levy points out:
Anthropology can bring about the transition form disorder to order, from anarchy to culture, only by using the figure of the mother to describe one thing and its opposite. That is, the libidinous mother represents the sexual disorder of the matrilineal household, while the docile and desirable mother stands for the sexual order of patrilineage.
Esi can be defined as that libidinous mother who does not feel ashamed about her naked body. In Ali´s words “he knew very few women from his part of the world who even tried to be at ease with their bodies”, and adds that “most women behaved as if the world was full of awful things- beginning with their bodies.” (75) He knows it is because of cultural background.
On the Nineteenth Century were common anatomical studies of the black female body trying to prove that the coloured woman “deviates from her middle-class counterpart by virtue of an excess of sexual features, chiefly her protudine genitals.” (Levy, A. 1991: 109). As Gilman indicated in “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth Century Art, Medicine and Literature”, such studies attempted to prove that “if their sexual parts could be shown to be inherently different, this would be a sufficient sign that blacks were a separate (and, needless to say, lower) race.” (Levy, A. 1991: 69).
On black women´s sexuality was the prove of their “race depravation”, on them was the responsibility of defending their people by hiding their bodies and sexuality.
Esi is conscious that everything is culturally imposed by patriarchy, and that a woman has to be proud of her sexuality, that she is the owner of her body; but she is conscious too that just one woman cannot struggle against that society and its longly imposed men´s tradition, as we can appreciate when talking about marital rape.
On Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis accuses capitalism of being responsible of rapes.
The class structure of capitalism encourages men who wield power in the economic and political realm to become routine agents of sexual exploitation”; but not only powerful men, “Working-class men, whatever their color, can be motivated to rape by the belief that their maleness accords them the privilege to dominate women.
Rape is another way of dominating women and “has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting a sexual attack” ( Carby, H.V. 1987: 39).
Naked Esi walking around the room can be interpreted as an invitation to that sexual attack if, according to those “patriarchal notions” it can be considered sexual attack. She knows that it is difficult for a white woman to talk about rape inside marriage and that it is especially difficult for an African woman because of African cultural background.
` How would you describe “marital rape” in Akan?'
` Wolof ? ... or Temne?'
` Kikuyu ? ... or Ki- Swahili?'
` Chi- Shona?'
` Zulu? ... or Xhosa?'
Related to the rape of coloured women is the topic about the black woman as a
“Dark Continent” that has to be penetrated, colonised and totally dominated. (quoted in Davies, C.B. 1994: 79). Esi´s body constitutes a savage and uncivilised place, and Oko, as the superior and powerful coloniser, tries to conquer it by using violence. But marriage is not the only way of subjecting a woman, it can be done through marriage: The reason why a woman should wear a man´s ring is:
“ ` To let the rest of the male world know that she is bespoke.'
` (...) that she has become occupied territory.'”
Marriage is constantly analysed on the novel. Through Esi´s mother and grandmother and through Ali´s and Oko´s family, Aidoo reflects marriage on the pre-capitalist African society and, comparing it with the actual situation, she makes us understand that, in spite of women´s better education, nothing has change for them when talking about their relationships with men and, what is more, that the situation is worse because of the loss of respect. Marriage is understand as the sum of “man and wife” (165) and signifies the transformation of woman into wife; she loses her identity and becomes her husband´s and children´s slave.
Certainly form as long as even our ancestors may have been able to remember, it seemed to have been always necessary for women to be swallowed up in this way. For some reason, that was the only way societies were built, societies survived and societies prospered.
The difference between Esi and the rest of female characters is that while Esi wants to be wife but without renouncing at her-self (as woman), Fusena, Opokuya and their female ancestors accept that “mutation” from woman to wife.
What a man understands by wife is clear in Ali´s attitude to his two wives. He is married to Fusena and Esi, but when he talks about `home', “he had always meant where he and his wife, Fusena, and their children lived.” (150). Fusena, in spite of her education, renounces to her job as teacher ( which is another “traditional work”), when she marries Ali. Esi wants to succeed in her job and loses first Oko and his daughter and then, Ali. Because of her attitude, she is said to be mad, a bitch or a witch, which are some of the topics about those who “refuse, as a woman, to be destroyed” (110).
On the same situation, Ali´s dedication to his job does not affect to his marriage to Fusena and, what is more, he takes a second wife and has a lover.
` Your male colleagues have still got their wives?' she said almost angrily.
` Not to mention the odd girlfriend or two.' Esi added.
` I'm glad you realise that yourself, eh?. And or course their wives and girlfriends are still waiting for them to come back home form more conferences... And where is your husband?'.
Equality between men and women will be possible with the “desexualization of domestic labor” (Davis, A. 1994: 223).
In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis alludes to the industrialisation of housework as the solution for women´s inequality on modern society (1994: 23). Taking as example the pre-capitalist Masai society, Davis blames capitalism for the actual degradation of housework.
Within the pre-capitalist, nomadic economy of the Masai, women´s domestic labor is as essential to the economy as the cattle-raising jobs performed by their men. As producers, they enjoy a correspondingly important social status. In advanced capitalist societies, on the other hand, the service-oriented domestic labor of housewives, who can seldom produce tangible evidence of their work, diminishes the social status of women in general.
Aidoo, when referring to marriage as “a funeral of the self” (110), makes a metaphor of the union of Western and African culture in Ghana: “We Africans have allowed ourselves to be regularly sacrificed to the egos of the Europeans, no?. So that, among other things, they can build strong machines of fire to burn us all and then go to the moon (...).” (110). She sees the modern Ghana as that wife who sacrifices her identity and becomes what her powerful husband, Europe, wants her to be. In her novel, “the majority succumb to temptation; they take of the fruit and eat, in their desire to emulate the powerful and the wealthy.” ( Innes, C.L 1995: 16. In Gurnah, A., ed. Vol. 2)
Ali is seduced by consumerism and sometimes seems to have lost respect for his own culture. “Like all `modern Western-educated Africans', Ali couldn't help it if he regularly bruised traditions and hurt people.” (133). He thinks everything can be bought and when he can not dedicate enough time to Esi, he tries to buy her love by making her gifts , including a brand new car.
Female characters and cars are constantly related in the novel. When Ali tells Fusena about taking a second wife, she gets into “a small two-door vehicle she had come to love unreasonably and fiercely” (99); we are told that “there had been a desperation in Opokuya´s voice when they were discussing Esi´s old car.” (155). Why that relation between women and cars?. Aidoo gives the answer on page 151 when referring to Esi driving her new car: “Soon she began to get that special feeling of power that a solid car always gives its drivers.” On their cars, they are the one who gives orders and can feel powerful.
On relation to that metaphoric marriage of Western and Ghanaian culture, Gloria Anzaldua´s theory of “borderlands” used by Carole Boyce Davies (1994: 63-67) to analyse Aidoo´s novel Anowa, can be useful on analysing Changes. As Davies points out “borderlands for Anzaldua are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races, sexualities, classes, genders occupy same territory.” (66).
As we have said, Western and African cultures co-exist in the same territory, and it is difficult to establish “borderlands” between them.
The powerful influence of European culture is constantly referred to on Changes:
Like other Muslims, Ali felt particularly bitter about the fact that the country didn't bother to claim a state religion, yet Christianity was everywhere. Assumed. The children were especially vulnerable. (...) He and Fusena had still not got an answer to the problem.
The establishment of boundaries is a problem with apparently no solution, but not only when talking about culture. Esi seems to be incapable of determining the borderline between family and work.
(...) `our people have said that for any marriage to work, one party have to be a fool.'
` And they really mean the woman, no ?
On the marriage of Western and African culture, Ghana is the “fool wife” that is losing her identity and adopting the European one.
“As far as Ghana, Aidoo´s birthplace, is concerned, the corrupt and corrupting destructive forces of colonialism have to be more directly reckoned with in any reconstruction of society.” (Rooney, C. 1991: 233-4 In Jump, H.D. ed.).
On women´s marriage of work and family, the fool party has to be work and the powerful one is the family. Only by accepting that type of “marriage”, a woman can find a place on actual societies.
`Do I think it must always be so.? Certainly not. It can be changed. It can be better. Life on this earth need not always be some humans being god and other being sacrificial animals. Indeed, that can be changed. But it would take so much. No, not time. There has always been enough time for anything anyone ever really wanted to do. What it would take is a lot of thinking and a great deal of doing. But one wonders whether we are prepared to tire our minds and our bodies that much. Are we human beings even prepared to try?
`Otherwise, it is very possible for life on this earth to be good for us all. My lady Silk, everything is possible.'
Aidoo´s Changes “envisions the possibility of a less harmful process of consumption, of welcoming and becoming part of an Africa which feels `like fresh honey on the tongue.'” (Innes, C.L. 1995: 16. In Gurnah, A., ed. Vol. 2).
For a woman, the possibility of becoming part of that society without renouncing at herself is difficult, but not impossible. Esi finally creates her own space and dreams with the possibility her grandmother talked about: “It can be changed.” (111)
“Yes, maybe, `one day, one day'” (166).
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____________ 1990. Changes. A Love Story. London: The Women's Press.
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“Women and African Capitalism in Changes”